We doubled the pleasure at Wente Wineries in Livermore Valley. L to R: Karen and Gabrielle. photo by Russ Wagner

We doubled the pleasure at Wente Wineries in Livermore Valley. L to R: Karen and Gabrielle. photo by Russ Wagner

Before Napa Valley became the viticultural Eden that it is, there was Livermore Valley. What! You’ve never heard of Livermore?

Neither had we until our recent summer trek to California,  Oregon and Washington to see friends, family, and do a whole lot of wine tasting.

Livermore wasn’t our first stop, but it became an agenda on my planner husband’s activity list when he discovered that’s where Wente Winery is located. Though somewhat familiar with Wente wines, we knew that 80% of all wines produced in California never leave the state, so what higher-end gems were Wente keeping secreted away that only their club members or locals would know?

Livermore Valley, CA

Getting to Livermore was an easy 40-minute car trip from my daughter Gabrielle’s house

Tasting room and gift shop at Concannon Vineyard in Livermore Valley. photo by Russ Wagner

Tasting room and gift shop at Concannon Vineyard in Livermore Valley. photo by Russ Wagner

in Oakland. She accompanied us on the California leg of exploratory imbibing. It became a day of multiple discoveries. Even though Gabrielle and her friends all frequent the Napa and Sonoma wineries, she had never been to or knew much about the geographically-closer Livermore Valley. We were all eager to be educated.

We arrived at Wente Vineyards Estate Tasting Room anticipating lunch pre-drinking. The Livermore Valley Wine Country guidebook noted several options. What the books didn’t specify is that Wente has two properties in the area. The one we first visited on Tesla Road has the larger tasting and gift room, classrooms, and a staging area where a Shakespeare festival was setting up, but no food other than some deli snacks. Ten minutes of driving on a long, twisting road, we arrived at Wente Vineyards Vineyard Tasting Room on Arroyo Road. Wente #2 has a golf course, courtyard fountain and waterfall reception area, lending library and even an event center. And yes, there is a beautiful upscale restaurant. We were ready to sit on the patio enjoying the glorious perfect 80’s sunshine but the only seating available was inside, where the menu was pricey and the tone of the place more suited for corporate negotiating or romantic interludes than relaxing and munching California-casual style.

We re-consulted our and discovered that Concannon Vineyard offers tastings, a gift shop and global cuisine on an expansive patio surrounded by green grass and trees. While waiting for an available outside table, we “suffered” through tasting amazing wines and hearing the story of Wente, Concannon and Napa Valley from our wine clerk and longtime proud Concannon employee, Chuck.

We didn’t know until then how a terrible disease had wiped out all the grapevines in the area but one sturdy Concannon vine was used to clone new plantings; hence, Concannon owning the Mother Vine.

Our chatty host regaled us with the history of how Livermore Valley lost acknowledgement as the first wine district prior to Napa Valley’s claim to that fame.

The battle was lost during Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, when only wineries catering to the Church were allowed to continue production. Livermore at that time had more than 50 wineries, but only Concannon and Wente, both begun in 1883, served the Church. Napa had 23 wineries, of which 20 served the church. Wente is the oldest continually-run family-owned vineyard and Concannon has the oldest, continuously operated winery under the same family label.

Our table was ready. To say we devoured our tapas dishes would be an understatement. As the outdoor patio is only open for a portion of the year, the menu changes regularly. I can tell you everything we ate was fresh, locally sourced, delicious and quite reasonably priced. For those of you who enjoy hosting a group, Conconnon offers Wine and Artisan Cheese Pairings, private tours and tastings, and a one-and-a-half hour Art of Blending Teambuilding session. Each event is customized to the size of the group.

Reasonably priced. Beautiful views.

Chuck had suggested we also try Nottingham Cellars Winery, in business since 1946. This was a smaller tasting room and the wines were appealing, but we didn’t want to purchase any until we tasted those at Wente. At Wente, we chose the $15 Winemakers’ Flight over the $10 Legacy Flight, preferring the reds over the whites and pinot noir featured on the Legacy. The Winemakers’ Flight included two wine club exclusives, the 2013 small Lot GSM and the 2012 Small Lot Duetto. I also really enjoyed the peppery Nth Degree Syrah, a $90 bottle unless you belong to their Wine Club for $81 or their more exclusive Nth Club, for $72.

By the time we’d finished tasting, our palates were done, but we are far from done exploring more of the current 56 Livermore Valley wineries in future visits.

Clarksburg, CA

The next day turned out to be another day of discovery for Gabrielle, Russ and me. Following a fantastic lunch and visit earlier in the day in Sacramento with my family’s dearest long-time friends, The Navarette clan, we headed to Clarksburg, home to Bogle Vineyards.

Bogle is one of our household’s everyday wines, but we weren’t sure if they made anything more higher-end. Getting to Bogle was a beautiful drive along a narrow winding road, past creeks and 1200 acres of lush grapevines. They have another 400 acres in the Lodi appellation. We didn’t see much traffic on the road and feared as it was a Sunday afternoon, perhaps they had closed early. There was no traffic because the party was already in full blast mode.

The wide plaza surrounding the rustic main two-story house was packed with people. Children played, adults at various tables celebrated evident bridal showers, birthdays, and let’s get out and drink in the warm sunshine along with the wide list of available wines. All that’s required of picnic-goers is to buy wine. What else is unique about Bogle is the large number of reds and whites offered for the tasting. I thought you had to choose between the whites and reds listed, but all were included. Bogle at Clarksburg planted their first 20 acres in 1968, though the family farmed since the early 1800s. At Clarksburg, they produce many varietals, including Merlot, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah and Riesling. Even with so many more wines available than we’ve ever seen, the typical bottle for non-wine club members is only $11. There are only two wines in the $20s; a 2011 Blanc de Blancs sparkler for $25 and a 20112 Reserve Merlot for $24. I like that the company’s philosophy seems to play to the everyday drinker and not professional snobs who believe if it’s not uber expensive, it can’t possibly be good.

It began as a trip to see family, friends and do a whole lot of wine tasting

Russ and I do quite a few road trips, enjoying the panorama of scenic beauty for which our country is known. With family and friends scattered around Oregon and California, it was easy to add in two cities neither of us had really explored: Seattle, WA and Portland, OR. At each, we played tourist for a couple days and reserved one day for visiting their well-known wine districts. (I’ll tell you about our hotels, attractions and restaurant experiences in another blog.)

Chateau Ste. Michelle's superb gift shop and tasting room in Woodinville, WA. photo by Russ Wagner

Chateau Ste. Michelle’s superb gift shop and tasting room in Woodinville, WA. photo by Russ Wagner

In past road trips, we’ve savored the bold flavors of syrahs, zinfandels, and cabernets in Sonoma, Napa, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Mendocino. In the past couple years we’ve acquired a taste for Washington wines from Walla Walla, Yakima , Columbia Valley and Horse Heaven Hills. Even though still considered a young wine industry, Washington is already the nation’s second largest wine producer, with more than 850 wineries producing more than 40 varietals. Don’t worry. We did not plan on trying all of them on this trip!

Woodinville, WA

Think of this as a wine bottling train at Chateau Ste. Michelle. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Think of this as a wine bottling train at Chateau Ste. Michelle. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Seattle was our first stop. Half an hour away is Woodinville, home to our must-go-to Chateau Ste. Michelle. While we enjoy Chateau Ste. Michelle whites and reds found in Florida stores, we wanted to taste the wines that never make it out of Washington. We anticipated tasting at three or four wineries on our list, but we had such great experiences, conversations and yes, wine tastings, that we only made it to two.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s oldest winery, is a sprawling complex with full kitchen, deli, picnic tables, amphitheater, lodging, conference rooms, and fabulous gift store attached to the main tasting room inside a French chateau. We immediately signed up for the free 10:30 am half-hour tour of the stunning property. Our guide was Jerry, a former high school coach and teacher for 32 years and when his offspring (daughter or son?) went into the wine business in Woodinville, he followed suit to educate his palate. Jerry’s natural humor perked up the history of the vineyard and its founders.

Before heading into a private tasting room for complimentary samples of three wines, we were able to watch bottles shuttled down a kid’s size roller coaster track that passed through “tunnels.” The bottles were filled, corked, foil was applied and the finished wines were plopped into case-sized boxes.

On the tour, we learned Chateau Ste. Michelle is the world’s leading producer of Riesling wine and that it also owns Canoe Ridge vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA (American Viticulture Area), the Cold Creek vineyard and the Indian Wells vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA. All vineyards with which Russ and I are familiar.

Following our tour’s tastings, we entered the official tasting room to buy one of their flights for $10 or $15 each. Jerry spied us and charmingly guided us through the experience. As this was our first stop, we reluctantly limited ourselves to how many bottles and gifts we’d buy. Honestly, sometimes I wonder which I like better: the wine tastings or finding the unique gifts that wineries offer.

Before indulging any further, we decided lunch was mandatory.

Woodinville is a community of about 11,000 people and over 100 wineries. As you can imagine, a tourist destination such as this encourages fierce competition among restaurants to serve the freshest or most creative cuisine. We found both at the Barking Frog, a restaurant inside Willows Lodge that had come highly recommended to us by numerous locals. Fortunately, it was across the street from Chateau Ste. Michelle because we were famished.

The meal began with warm crusty bread served with a homemade roasted sundried tomato and caper tapenade. I gorged on a Dungeness crab and bacon-wrapped prawns Cobb salad. The sweetness of the crab against the salt of the bacon was a fusion of bliss in my mouth. Russ dived into a steak (automatically coming with Béarnaise, which sealed the deal) and fries. The food could not have been better prepared. He drank beer. I stuck with water or I wouldn’t have even made it to the second winery.

Throwing caution to the wind—for Russ that means we didn’t adhere to his list, we were drawn into the Brian Carter tasting room because a sign outside said he’d been voted the #1 wine maker in Washington. If he is the top winemaker, the wines must be pretty darned great, right?

Maybe it was our cheery inquisitive demeanor or maybe Brian Carter’s staff was just happy to see us because no other customers were there, but we ended up laughing, conversing and wine tasting for maybe an hour. We wondered why no crackers or bread were laid out to cleanse our palate. Apparently, in Washington, only wineries with full kitchens, like Chateau Ste. Michelle which caters, are allowed to serve food samples. They did, however, let us taste their personal supply of whiskey barrel maple syrup produced by Woodinville Whisky, just around the corner. Neither of us have ever tasted such a distinctive, fill-your-mouth-with-popping-flavor maple syrup. The heck with pancakes. This syrup could be oozed over ice cream for a sinful treat. I received some surprised looks though when I popped into Woodinville Whiskey, whose bar was lined up with men downing shots, and just asked to buy the maple syrup!

Portland, OR – Dundee area

Penner-Ash in Dundee, OR is a place of beauty, serenity, and Pinot Noirs. This is the view from the back decking's gardens. photo by Russ Wagner

Penner-Ash in Dundee, OR is a place of beauty, serenity, and Pinot Noirs. This is the view from the back decking’s gardens. photo by Russ Wagner

OK. Full disclosure. Russ and I knew we weren’t big Pinot Noir drinkers even before going wine tasting in the Dundee area. We had driven up the Oregon coast a few years before, but the only two wineries we explored even then specialized in zippier reds.

So why explore Oregon wineries at all, which are known for their pinots? We are consciously expanding our horizons (and maybe our waistlines) by trying to deconstruct why these wines are so trendy popular. We visited seven wineries in the Dundee vicinity, about a half hour’s drive from Portland. We found beautiful wineries, friendly people, and intimate tasting rooms. We only found one pinot we actually liked enough to buy at Chapter 24, and then it was a housewarming gift we’d be delivering the next day. That was the only pinot we bought.

A GPS was necessary to find Chapter 24, a wee tasting room without even a sign. This young winery produced an award-winning pinot in its first year of business. Wine & Spirit Magazine’s June 2014 issue starred their bottle called The Last Chapter on the cover and rated it a 96. We liked it enough to give a bottle to two of our favorite people, Russ’ brother Randy and our sister-in-law Cher, who had just moved to Bend, OR the week before.

We did pop next door to Argyle Winery, known for its sparkling wines, as well as offering Rieslings, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Didn’t buy any, but did enjoy their 2011 Blanc de Blancs best.

The first winery we visited was Ponzi, likely the best-known of Oregon wineries. We weren’t crazy about the wines, but loved their brand-new tasting room, spacious and light, with incredible views of the Willamette Valley. Russ says a bonus for visiting Oregon wineries is that so much of the landscape around them is reminiscent of Sonoma about 30 years ago. There are long, crooked roads up and down mountains and valleys, gorgeous (summertime) flowers and trees, and startling acres of vines laden with plump grapes.

What we discovered about Oregon pinot noirs is that the average bottle sold at a winery is $80. Likely because we enjoy the spicy, jammy or tongue-teasing tangs of zins, cabs and syrahs, we find pinot noirs to be thin, watery, and devoid of much flavor. They tasted pretty much alike no matter where we sampled. The prettiest of the Dundee wineries we visited has to be Penner-Ash. Their tasting room was like an oversized living room, with floor to ceiling windows offering spectacular views of mountains and the valley’s vineyards. You could hang out on deck chairs on the rock decking, tuck onto a stool near the bar, or wander around the garden as long as you didn’t step on all the herbs and vegetables they grow that the staff takes turns using to fix dinner for each other on a regular basis.

We also discovered that just because wineries and restaurants make critics’ lists as “musts” does not make them good, at least to my palate.

Joel Palmer restaurant, highly touted, was closed. Russ had read the reviews but hadn’t noted they’re only open for dinner and not on Sunday, which this was. Palmer also owns Barlow, just down the street. Palmer’s is fine dining. Barlow’s looks more like a rustic cafe. Both are physically located in Dayton, an unimpressive small town that you can’t even quantify as quaint. They only serve brunch on Sunday but it was also the only place we found open. We needed to eat. Their food was either heavy with eggs (which I’d had for breakfast) or deep-fried. Russ had the chicken-fried pork with roasted potatoes, smothered in sausage gravy. I ordered what I thought was pulled pork, black bean & corn salsa and said no to the eggs they were going to add. Turned out to be about two teaspoons of pork, three black beans and three pieces of corn over salsa-coated nachos. Yuck. I ate the pork and a couple of chips and passed on the rest. The server noticed and didn’t seem surprised when I explained how I interpreted the dish from the description to be something quite different. He removed the dish from the bill, but that didn’t feed my tummy.

Until we headed to Livermore Valley, that was the last of our winery visits until the next time. Stay tuned.

www.argylewinery.com

www.boglewinery.com

www.chapter24vineyards.com

www.concannonvineyard.com

www.nottinghamcellars.com

www.pennerash.com

http://www.ponziwines.com

www.ste-michelle.com

www.wentevineyards.com

http://www.willowslodge.com

http://www.woodinvillewhiskey.com

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI and is now serving on the 2015 – 2016 MPI Global advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

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